Anyone who has gone through a fitness routine at the gym will understand how rewarding it feels afterwards – as well as how sore and painful you will feel a few days after a particularly good workout.
The general perception that many have about this post-workout pain is that it is caused by lactic acid buildup. This is not entirely true. Having a better understanding of how lactic acid plays a role in your exercise routine can help you plan a more effective workout.
The function of lactic acid
Why does lactic acid get produced?
This has to do with the type of metabolism that happens in your body. To produce energy, carbohydrates are metabolised in the presence of oxygen in your blood cells, to be used by your muscles. This is known as aerobic metabolism.
During a workout session, you may be reaching your energy limit, but want to push yourself just a little bit more. This is when your muscles switch to anaerobic metabolism, which causes the release of lactic acid as a secondary source of energy.
But too much lactic acid produces a burning sensation in your muscles, and forces you to slow down – a self-defence mechanism by your body to prevent injury.
It has been found that lactic acid actually clears out of your system after an hour or two of your workout, so it cannot be the cause of the soreness – also known as delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) – that you feel a few days after your workout.
Swelling, inflammation and tenderness as a result of damage to your muscle cells, are the real culprits of DOMS.
Therefore, considering that your body has already undergone physical stress throughout the workout, it is not advisable to push yourself to the limit before you are physically ready, despite conventional fitness beliefs.
There is no shame in building up your stamina gradually, and do always warm up before beginning any fitness routine, to activate your muscles.
Reducing lactic acid in muscles
What this means is that a moderate amount of lactic acid does not hurt your body, and at some point, might actually be a necessary component in the energy production cycle during a workout.
But if you are still in the early stages of your fitness journey, you will feel much better while exercising and benefit a great deal more from your routine if you can prevent lactic acid from building up too rapidly. To reduce lactic acid in the muscles, you can do the following:
- Eat right
Protein-rich foods like flax, nuts, seeds, soy protein and lean meat, help repair your muscles, as well as help them adapt to lactic acid buildup.
Green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale and broccoli, are alkaline and suitable to help balance lactic acid in muscles. Some physical trainers also recommend taking vitamin C and potassium to flush out large amounts of lactic acid from the muscles, speeding up muscle recovery.
- Breathe deeply
You may feel a burning sensation in your muscles while exercising. It is partly caused by the buildup of lactic acid, but the other reason is a lack of oxygen. Pay close attention to your breathing while exercising. Breathe deeply in and out at a consistent pace.
Try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth, like how they teach in pilates and yoga classes. This will help deliver more oxygen to your muscles.
- Be careful with weight-lifting
Lifting weights tends to promote lactic acid buildup because it needs more oxygen than our bodies are capable of delivering. Even though we are told that “feeling the burn” is a great thing, a build-up of lactic acid may lead to micro-tears that cause trauma to the muscles.
There is no need to rush into lifting large amounts of weights; be sure to increase the weight and repetitions gradually, in order to maintain levels of lactic acid that are healthy.
Rotate working out muscle groups to give each group a chance to recover, and prevent over-accumulation of lactic acid. As you work out more often, your muscles will adapt accordingly. You will notice that when your fitness level increases, you will suffer less from muscle pains.
- Drink plenty of water
Drink lots of water while you work out. By the time you notice you are thirsty during a workout, you may already be dehydrated. Some experts advise taking sports drinks to restore the lost electrolytes.
It is recommended that you drink one or two glasses (236.6ml to 473ml) of water before you work out, then drink one glass (236.6 ml) of water for every 20 minutes of working out.
Lactic acid is water-soluble. The more hydrated you are, the less likely you are to feel a burn during exercise.
- Work out regularly
Aim to work out at least three times a week. The more fit you are physically, the less glucose your body will need to burn and the less lactic acid will build up.
Develop an exercise plan to add minutes or repetitions to your routine gradually, as this will eventually raise the level at which your body starts to produce lactic acid. But make sure to take at least one or two rest days to allow your muscles to recover.
- Stretch after your workout
As lactic acid disperses fairly quickly after a workout, stretching helps to release lactic acid – reducing the muscle cramps and burning sensations you might experience. Stretch your muscles lightly after any intense exercise.
Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds for the best effect, and gently massage the affected areas. Stretching your muscles again before bedtime and in the morning is an option if you still feel sore.
With the new year just around the corner, let’s keep this in mind when formulating an exercise plan. Here’s to working out smarter for a fitter and better you.
By Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar
Published in Star Newspaper, Dec 13, 2015